Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Bellevue Club Wellness - Where your Health comes FIRST

Exercising to relax

Rest and relaxation. The two don't always go together, but you can recharge with a break from your hectic life. Surprisingly, physical activity is one of the best relaxation techniques because it reduces stress and anxiety.

How it works:

Regular aerobic exercise brings remarkable changes to your body, your metabolism, your heart and your spirits. It can exhilarate and relax, provide stimulation and a sense of calm and battle depression. It's a common experience among endurance athletes and has been verified in clinical trials, which have successfully used exercise to treat anxiety disorders and depression.

How it helps:

There are several explanations, some chemical and others behavioral. The mental benefits of aerobic exercise have a neurochemical basis. Exercise reduces levels of the body's stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that work as the body's natural painkillers and mood elevators. Endorphins are responsible for the "runner's high" and for the feelings of relaxation and optimism after a hard workout.

Behavioral factors also contribute to the emotional benefits of exercise. As your waistline shrinks and your strength and stamina increase, your self-image improves. You'll earn a sense of mastery and control, of pride and self-confidence. Exercise and sports also provide opportunities to either enjoy some solitude or to make friends and build networks. Exercise is play and recreation; when your body is busy, your mind will be distracted from the worries of daily life and be free to think creatively.

Almost any type of exercise will help. Many people find that using large muscle groups in a rhythmic, repetitive fashion works best; call it 'muscular meditation', and you'll begin to understand how it works. Walking and jogging are prime examples. Even a simple 20-minute stroll can help. But some people prefer vigorous workouts that burn stress along with calories--a reason elliptical machines are so popular. And the same stretching exercises that help relax your muscles after a hard workout will help relax your mind as well.

Adding relaxation to rest:

Stressed muscles are tight, tense muscles. By learning to relax your muscles, you will be able to use your body to dissipate stress. Muscle relaxation takes a bit longer to learn than deep breathing. It also takes more time. But even if this form of relaxation takes a little effort, it can be a useful part of your stress control program.

How it works:

Progressive muscle relaxation is best performed in a quiet, secluded place. You should be comfortably seated or stretched out on a firm mattress or mat. Until you learn the routine, have a friend recite the directions or listen to them on a tape, which you can prerecord yourself. Progressive muscle relaxation focuses sequentially on the major muscle groups. Tighten each muscle and maintain the contraction 20 seconds before slowly releasing it. As the muscle relaxes, concentrate on the release of tension and the sensation.

Start with your facial muscles, then work down the body:

Forehead: Wrinkle your forehead and arch your eyebrows. Hold; then relax.
Eyes: Close your eyes tightly. Hold; then relax.
Nose: Wrinkle your nose and flare your nostrils. Hold; then relax.
Tongue: Push your tongue firmly against the roof of your mouth. Hold; then relax.
Face: Grimace. Hold; then relax.
Jaws: Clench your jaws tightly. Hold; then relax.
Neck: Tense your neck by pulling your chin down to your chest. Hold; then relax.
Back: Arch your back. Hold; then relax.
Chest: Breathe in as deeply as you can. Hold; then relax.
Stomach: Tense your stomach muscles. Hold; then relax.
Buttocks and thighs: Tense your buttocks and thigh muscles. Hold; then relax.
Arms: Tense your biceps. Hold; then relax.
Forearms and hands: Tense your arms and clench your fists. Hold; then relax.
Calves: Press your feet down. Hold; then relax.
Ankles and feet: Pull your toes up. Hold; then relax.
The entire routine should take 12 to 15 minutes. Practice it twice daily, expecting to master the technique and experience stress relief in about two weeks.

Courtesy: Harvard Medical School Newsletter (August 2011)

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